After coup, Fiji trial seeks truth - and image repair

Monday's hearing precedes a trial that could implicate several men in the elite.

More than a year after the coup that toppled the island's elected government, the plotters return to court next week in a case Fijians hope will restore the country's image as a peaceful South Pacific democracy.

Since the coup, sanctions have battered the economy, dependent on tourism, textiles, and sugar exports. Hotels are running at 30 percent occupancy, and last year the garment industry lost $10 million, a vast sum in a country of only 813,000 people. Australia, New Zealand, and the European Union have also suspended about $8 million in foreign aid.

The trial could bring a return to the rule of law. But if it implicates powerful figures in business, the military, and civil service, it could inflame the same forces that inspired the coup.

George Speight - who led the overthrow of parliament on May 19 last year - and 12 collaborators are charged with treason and may face the death penalty.

"Treason, of course, is the most serious offense in any country," says deposed Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry, who hopes to be reelected in August. He and 30 other hostages were held at gunpoint for 56 days last year. At his fortified office in the Suva hills, where he runs the National Farmers' Union, Mr. Chaudhry says he now wants lenience for his captors. "I do not believe in taking life away. But people who ... bring a nation to its knees, must not get off lightly, either."

Mr. Speight, a US-educated businessman, claimed to have toppled Chaudhry's socialist coalition in the name of indigenous rights. He argued that Chaudhry, the first Indian prime minister in a nation where ethnic Indians are 44 percent of the population, was threatening the land holdings of the indigenous people.

But some see darker motives. "I do not think Fijian interests were the cause of this," says Tomasi Vakatora, a Fijian moderate and former Speaker of parliament. "My theory is that people who wanted power, and could not get it through the proper means, were simply using the Fijian people as a stepping stone."

The multiracial Constitution Mr. Vakatora helped draft in 1997 was praised for combining indigenous rights and racial equality. Although two Fiji Supreme Court rulings declared it illegal, the interim government of Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase is trying to rewrite Fiji's Constitution to entrench indigenous power.

Satendra Prasad of the University of the South Pacific in Suva, says business interests opposed to Chaudhry's policies of a minimum wage, breaking up of sugar and rice monopolies, a crackdown on tax evasion, and the abolition of tax-free factory zones aroused nationalist sentiment. Prior to Chaudhry, "We had a kind of crony capitalism, like in Indonesia," says Dr. Prasad. "Elements of the business community wanted to bring the new government down, and the easiest way to do that was to inflame indigenous people by saying: Here was an Indian prime minister coming to take your land."

The treason trial is widely expected to unearth a conspiracy involving senior military officers, businessmen, and former nationalist politicians who could not accept defeat. Even some members of the interim regime are accused of helping to plot Chaudhry's overthrow, as is the country's former military dictator, retired Maj.-Gen. Sitiveni Rabuka. Mr. Rabuka lost the 1999 election to Chaudhry.

The trial will take place against the backdrop of campaigns for August elections. Fiji's body politic is already badly fractured, and almost 30 parties, most of them nationalists favoring greater indigenous rights, are contesting the election. Chaudhry's Labour Party remains the favorite but it, too, is divided.

Vakatora fears that if nationalists win and change the Constitution, Fiji will again become a pariah. Before 1997, "Our Constitution was not accepted internationally and [major trading partners] Australia and New Zealand treated us like lepers."

But if the Chaudhry government is re-elected it will not enjoy unanimous support in the 99 percent indigenous military. While the supreme commander, Commodore Frank Bainimarama, says the army will "stand by the rule of law," questions remain over whether it would defy nationalist sentiment and keep Chaudhry in power.

"We'll be there with the government," says military spokesman Lt. Ilaisa Tagitupou. "But the concern is that should we have a repeat of the whole thing [the coup] ... oh, you've got me there."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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